Remember the old song from the “Sesame Street” television show, “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other?”
By Sarah Varney
Remember the old song from the “Sesame Street” television show, “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other?” The May 8 forum hosted by the League of Women Voters brought to mind that tune as candidates Karen Belanger, the incumbent, and Blake Jines-Storey spoke favorably about the School District’s performance as a whole, while candidate Jason Mehler expressed his dissatisfaction with the School Board.
Belanger is running for a second three-year term on the board. Prior to his first-time candidacy, Jines-Storey served two years on the school’s Curriculum Council and is now heading the Instructional Technology Committee. Mehler, is a Rye real estate agent with an accounting background, who has served on the Rye Town Park Advisory Committee and the Recreation Commission. Last November, he ran for a seat on the Rye City Council.
The 90-minute session began with opening statements from each of the three candidates. Incumbent Karen Belanger stressed her experience and her continuing involvement in the schools on a day-to-day basis. She has two high schoolers and a Midland fifth grader. Summing up her vision, she said “I would like to continue to look for ways to improve our school system in cost efficient ways.”
Jines-Storey, the CTO of Zachy’s Wines of Scarsdale focused on his technology background and the unique skills he brings as a ones and zeros guy. He also expressed his desire to possibly unify the District’s technology vision across the schools.
Mehler told audience members that he is running solely to serve all of the taxpayers in Rye. He noted that the current $3.8 million gap in the budget, which the District plans to fill with reserves and possibly the proceeds from a utility tax, is one example of the board’s “irrational decisions to spend our money.” Mehler opined that he hears frequently from senior citizens who voice their complaints about high property taxes and the ways in which the School District spends its budget.
In answer to the question “Do you support the tax cap and/or the utility tax?” the three candidates stayed true to type. Jines-Storey said he supports a move to make changes to the tax cap law and understands the need for mandate relief. “The pension cost increases are staggering and the tax cap handcuffs schools. The State should either manage these pension costs better or provide mandate relief,” he said.
Belanger expressed her support for the utility tax in light of rising pension costs for teachers and school employees and rising enrollments. She would also support an override of the tax cap law if it’s necessary in the 2015-2016 budget cycle.
In contrast, Mehler said he does not support the utility tax or any override for the tax caps. Cost-cutting is the wisest approach not reliance on reserve funds, he noted.
The next LVW question went straight to the heart of the District and Board of Education’s current controversy over how to resolve the teacher suspension and reassignment situation. And that’s when the elephant in the room raised its trunk.
Jason Mehler is the husband of Carin Mehler, a fourth-grade teacher at the Osborn School who has been reassigned to non-teaching duties since at least four students made improper coaching allegations against her. Carin Mehler filed a civil suit – Mehler v. Rye City School District – on March 26 in federal district court against 26 former and current members of the board and administration.
“The situation is a tremendous abuse of teachers and a complete waste of taxpayer dollars on things that have no value,” Mehler said. He reiterated that he is running for the board “to serve seniors and members of the community of all ages.”
Both Jines-Storey and Belanger defended the District’s handling of the teacher controversy. “The resolution has taken way too long but we have to protect the rights of employees and teachers,” he said. Belanger said only that she understood the public’s fervent desire to resolve the situation as soon as possible. Belanger is one of the defendants named in the Mehler suit.
Some would argue that the improper testing controversy, which began in April 2013, was set off by the debut of Common Core end-of-year testing. And League of Women Voters moderator Betty Hufford made sure not to leave the Common Core issue unexplored.
Jines-Storey called the state’s rollout of the federal curriculum standards “misguided at best.” He also said that as a technologist he was concerned about the value of testing. “You want to make sure that your tests are going to measure what you want them to,” he said. However, he welcomed the introduction of higher standards in the classroom. Belanger echoed his concerns. “The problem has been that the implementation of Common Core has been flawed from the start,” she said but she also stated her support overall for the standards.
Mehler criticized the Common Core project and said that the day-to-day curriculum is “dry, dull, and not age-appropriate.” He went on to disparage the quality of the curriculum materials available on the State’s Engage New York website. Mehler also made the claim that “some schools [in Rye] are not even using the Common Core modules,” but provided no details.
The rest of the evening was spent discussing the role of sports in the schools, the wisdom of property tax breaks for veterans, and which programs might be eliminated in time for the next budget cycle. A questioner from the audience asked if the candidates would disclose any possible conflicts of interest as members of the board. All three agreed that recusal in some circumstances would not be a problem.
In closing statements, Belanger and Jines-Storey expressed optimism about the future of the schools in Rye.
“I plan to continue to use my experience to continue our careful stewardship of resources,” said Belanger, who added, “My political aspirations begin and end with the Rye City School Board.”
Jines-Storey allowed that all of the issues brought up at the forum are complicated and they need to be addressed. He reiterated his desire to help bring about a comprehensive technology vision to the district.
Jason Mehler took the opportunity to finish with his belief that “somewhere the Rye schools have gone wrong. He continued, “My decision to run is based entirely on helping every member of the community and all of the children in the district. We must rebuild the fractured relationship between our teachers and administrators.”
The League of Women Voters Candidates’ Forum is scheduled for viewing on Rye TV every day at 6 p.m. and May 17 at 9 a.m., noon, 3 and 8 p.m.